Friday, August 21st, 2009
Carol Coletta is the President of CEO’s for Cities. One of the things that really distinguishes her from the pack is her realism about urban change, and most notably the recognition that we actually have to sell people on a positive vision of urban life to induce lifestyle change. So much of the rhetoric around urban policies is about the negatives we are trying to combat: global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, farmland loss, etc. People are told that they should move from their spacious homes in the suburbs to smaller apartments in the city in dense neighborhoods without cars all for the good of the planet or some such.
This type of dour message is unlikely to convince anyone that isn’t already sold. You can’t sell a product like urban life with “eat your spinach” type marketing. Americans won’t buy malaise, an “era of limits”, and that their lifestyle choices are “unsustainable”. Americans want a positive, hopeful, optimistic vision of the future. This is something Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan understood, and of course Jimmy Carter did not. People want “Hope”.
Carol had an article over at Good Magazine about how we tackle this problem called “Replacing the American Dream“. It is a leadup to a CEO’s for Cities program called Velocity that appears to be designed to create that positive, aspirational narrative of urban life in a way that will appeal to a new target market.
I’m not sure I’d personally say “replacing” the American dream. I’m not anti-suburb. Nor do I think people were conned into moving there. Do I think there are huge subsidies to encourage suburban migration that ought to be cut off? Yes I do and I’ve written about them here. But I have to respect that there are those who have made a fully legitimate choice to live that lifestyle.
But there are plenty of others who made that choice by default, without careful consideration. If given an alternative vision about how they could achieve their personal aspirations in an urban environment, they might be open to being convinced – particularly if there is as much Madison Ave. behind it as there was behind suburbanization for the last 60 years.
Here is an excerpt from the piece:
When GM depicted a new vision of the good life for Americans at the 1939 World’s Fair, it looked like a dream come true. Vivid pictures romanced a new highway system through rural farmland into the heart of a well-ordered city, where every family would live in a single-family home in a single-use neighborhood filled with families from a single income bracket. Such promised order, combined with the freedom of a car in every garage, offered previously unimagined possibilities. And it worked.
Signs of the new American good life are everywhere. Young adults, with their pursuit of 24/7 lifestyles, led the way back to the city. By 2000, they were 33 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods close to the center of town. The interest in cycling has exploded, with commensurate responses by municipal governments in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, just recently, Boston, to make cycling easier and safer. Similarly, the local food movement has gained a foothold with the mainstream, with farmers markets popping up in the most unlikely places. More Americans are choosing dense condo living than ever before.
The problem is this: These remain only disconnected signals. To date, Americans are unable to see the new pattern that is developing. There is not yet a compelling narrative about this emerging good life into which Americans can project their own lives—certainly nothing with enough power to counter the stories we tell ourselves about what is “normal.”
Even though the signs may be all around them that something new and important is underway, they haven’t put the pieces together.
That’s why CEOs for Cities—a national network of urban leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors, of which I am the president and CEO—is launching a new movement we call Velocity in mid-September. Its purpose is to create an energizing agenda for next generation cities and nurture the initiatives needed to advance that vision—and to pull it all together in a way that defines a new aspirational lifestyle for Americans, one that eventually becomes the “new normal.”
Again, I’d say that I don’t personally think we need to have just one definition of the good life. In an every more diverse society, we need ever more diverse ways of living to meet people’s aspirations in life. But right now we’ve only got one version of “normal” and that’s the suburbs. If nothing else, to renew our cities we need to put out a credible alternative vision of “the good life” in an urban context.
Carol is one of the best out there. She really gets it on these things. So I’m very much looking forward to see what comes next. This is a very important initiative.
In the meantime, if you want to see a positive vision of the future informed by a progressivist worldview, please check out Bruce Mau’s Massive Change.